Poetry and Dating
Although it’s been a while since I last wrote any poetry, I don’t consider it out of my blood. I might be feeling a little jaded, but the first instinct that springs to mind when something sparks an idea, is to put it in poetic form. Something I always wonder, is why I have never dated any of my poems. Of course I don’t mean wining and dining them, taking them for a spin around the dancefloor; I mean recording what date I completed them! That is, in fact, not strictly true. Back when I began writing poems in my teenage years, I typed out a list of poems, each with their date of completion; I pinned that to my bedroom wall. I have no idea what happened to that list, nor does it really matter. There are occasions when I look at those early poems and tinker with them a little, even now — thirty years since I wrote them.
The poems in my pamphlet, Dressing Up, are not in any kind of chronological order. As with most poetry collections, the ordering attempts to present the poems in a way that tells a story or varies the levels of emotion and maybe alternates seriousness with humour. In Dressing Up the poems are mostly serious, but there are a couple of light-hearted ones too 🙂 This week we are continuing with the next two poems.
Breakfast is the Most Important Meal of the Day
Effervescent green is the morning
oscillating with butterflies
flutter or fight
I am the coca cola Red Admiral
with skinny arms
it’s tough landing a job
when you’re uncomfortably skin and bone
behind a dozen anaemic replies
like being back at school pupating —
was my denim too faded?
was it not distressed enough?
A young girl
struggling to separate fashion from fears
even now am I too uptight?
Across the swanky table
the power suits
staring at me
staring at my pink shoes.
In this poem I wasn’t trying to imply that only a young girl would feel anxious at a first job interview … I know I felt that nervous at job interviews, and especially at university interviews. I was actually lucky with my first proper job — there was an advert in the local paper for jobs at the DVLA headquarters in Swansea, so I applied. I was invited to an exam-like test, where maybe two dozen people answered a set of pretty basic questions. I was successful so wasn’t actually interviewed! Despite working at DVLA for two years, when I applied for jobs there after completing my MA at Swansea University twenty years later, I couldn’t get through their online versions of the examination test!
I can’t remember if I was aware of this when I wrote the poem, but I notice now how much colour features in the poem — bearing in mind that I was blind when I wrote it. The very first line has Effervescent green as an illustration of the girl’s unsettled stomach. In the second stanza her skinny arms are described as iPhone white — illustrating unease at her self-image whilst also suggesting that her comfort zone is texting on her mobile. In the third and fourth stanzas there is no mention of colour directly, but in the third stanza her replies are described as anaemic, which indicates a lack of iron — iron being a strong red. In the fourth stanza she recalls being worried at school about whether her denim was too faded or not distressed enough — denim typically being a blue or black.
And then we turn to the interviewers, who are all men. I had a clear image in mind when I wrote this stanza. I was recalling an interview I had at Nottingham University. I had previously been to the university for a student medical conference, so I knew I liked the university campus and felt comfortable there. When I went into the interview room the chair I was to sit in was on one side of a table, with three men in suits on the other side! To my 17-year-old mind I felt like I was being grilled alive — like I was defending a PhD dissertation or something! Although I was offered a place to study microbiology, I didn’t accept it because I was so unsettled by that interview!
And then we come to the penultimate line of that poem, the image of the men in their power suits staring at the girl … leading to the last line, staring at my pink shoes. There is intentional ambiguity there — are the men staring at her pink shoes, or are they staring at her whilst she is staring down at her pink shoes, or is everybody in the room staring at her pink shoes? The lack of punctuation in this poem allows for the uncertainty in the interpretation of that image. Also worth noting that the final image wouldn’t have worked if I had made it a boy at his first interview, since he would be unlikely to be wearing pink shoes to a job interview!
like a flag in the metaphysical breeze.
The path, coiling like a spring
recoiling like a pistol.
the next step,
hovering beneath the feet
of tomorrow’s dancers,
beginning in the mirror,
misty with the breath of getting-ready water —
the point where everything starts
and everything must stop.
An opened envelope;
beginning with the windings of yesterday’s clocks.
This poem was inspired by mouth-painting artist Rosie Moriarty-Simmons’s painting Blue Ballet Slippers. She entered the painting into the Disability Arts Cymru painting competition in 2015. I was in the early stages of recovering from chemotherapy and radiotherapy treatment for cancer of the central nervous system, so I was not up to writing any poetry but, post-recovery, I wrote two poems inspired by two of the artworks. A friend described the Blue Ballet Slippers painting for me — a pair of blue ballet shoes en pointe. I liked that image so much, and wrote my poem. I also bought a framed print of the artwork.
Towards the end of 2015, I was unexpectedly contacted on Twitter by the then editor of Poetry Wales, Nia Davies. She asked me whether I’d like to be involved in a project she was planning, though she didn’t say anything about the project in any more detail at that time! Naturally I said a hearty yes! It turned out that she wanted to give the Summer 2016 issue a disability focus, and she wanted me to write something about how being blind affected my poetry. I wrote a 750-word article which included the poem Tomorrow’s Dancers.
Before my pamphlet had been accepted for publication, a couple of poetry friends suggested the description of the breeze as metaphysical was a bit abstract. I pondered the advice, but ultimately stuck with it. In my mind I was thinking of the idea of To be, or not to be from Act III, Scene I (Hamlet’s Soliloquy in William Shakespeare’s play, Hamlet). I was imagining making a choice being similar to a pirouette in ballet; rotating one way producing a different outcome to rotating the other way; I consider Tomorrow’s Dancers an existential poem.
I liked the pairing of a coiled spring and a pistol in stanza two. The tightness of the spring, exploding like a pistol — like a jeté in ballet. In stanza three there is an uncertainty, what will the world be like when the feet, hovering above the ground land? I chose to break the line after the word feet because there is a brief pause before listening to the next line, or scanning to the next line while reading the poem, like a momentary hovering.
Rather amusingly, during my piano lesson last week, I was telling my teacher that I had booked tickets to go to a performance of Swan Lake at St David’s Hall in Cardiff after Christmas. She told me about watching Billy Elliot — the 2000 film about a young boy whose ambition is to be a ballet dancer. The film ends with Billy launching himself onto the stage as an adult in a performance of Swan Lake. My teacher related how her daughter was dancing around the room while watching the film, so my teacher chose to join in with a jeté … landing on a thick knotted-rope dog toy, twisting her ankle!
The image of a mirror that has been fogged by the vapours of hot water in stanza four is one that I’ve always liked. In the 2003 film Paycheck (which adapts a story by Philip K. Dick), Ben Affleck’s character (Michael) writes a message on a mirror that is only visible when the mirror has clouded over when Uma Thurman’s character (Rachel) runs a sink of hot water, allowing her to see that she should meet him at Cafe Michel at 1pm. Also in keeping with the existential undertone of this poem, I was thinking of a line in the Leonard Cohen song, Dress Rehearsal Rag: that’s a funeral in the mirror / and it’s stopping at your face.
In the final stanza, we learn about an opened envelope. I choose to leave it to the reader to decide what that envelope may have contained. In Billy Elliot there is a scene where a letter telling Billy whether he has been accepted to study at the Royal Ballet School has arrived and is waiting to be opened; maybe that is the sort of news that was contained in the letter in my poem — maybe it was a yes, and maybe it was a no. To be or not to be. I have always believed that our own individual lives are the result of all of the decisions we have made that have brought us to this position. I, for example, probably wouldn’t have been writing this blog at all if I hadn’t had an addiction to cake and sugary food that caused me to lose my sight. I would probably still have been working as a Chartered transportation planner, writing strategy documents for local councils rather than poems and working on a novel. The end pair of lines portrays this, suggesting that the seeds of the future are planted by the windings of yesterday’s clocks.
The reason this is such an important poem to me is that, despite its brevity, it packs so much into it. I can’t honestly say that I consciously connected all of the lines with those inspirations, but they were all present in my subconscious. That is why I never worry about dry periods when I am not actively writing poetry. As long as I am alive, I know I am absorbing things that may well find their way into my writing, even at a subconscious level 🙂